Early morning at Kenninji temple in Gion. Much, much too early for the maiko who flit through the streets of this district in the evening. A light rain falls coloring the wood and stone of the temple, the green of the gardens.
The zendo (meditation hall) is set with perfectly spaced dark green zabuton (cushions) in four neat rows on the tatami floor. The room is mostly empty when my friend and I arrive, but quickly fills up. I am surprised to see two children, not more than 7-years-old, with their parents. Sitting still is an impossible task for most children. This is clearly not their first time. They approach the ritual with a quiet maturity well beyond their years.
A bell rings three times (shijosho). The first of two 20-minute sessions begins.
My knowledge of zazen is rudimentary: sit, meditate. And maybe that is all there is to it. In most Zen Buddhist practices it is best not to overthink, not to analyze, really to not even try. It sounds easy, but I find it rather difficult. Instead of clearing my mind, reaching the desired mushin (no mind), I find myself thinking of zazen in a very self-conscious way: "here I am doing zazen." I am thinking about writing about the experience. It is annoying, this thought pattern.
There is a barefooted monk with a long, flat stick. He walks very slowly up and down the rows, each step measured, thoughtful, like a crane negotiating a stream. The stick he carries is called a keisaku (awakening stick). It is used for whacking sleepy or distracted meditators. I had read about this stick somewhere, but was a little startled by the sharp crack it makes shattering the stillness of the hall. At first I wondered, what is this sound, where is it coming from? Then the woman across from me bowed before the monk and pressed her hands together as in prayer, the signal to him, "My mind is preoccupied. I've lost focus." The stick is placed on the right shoulder and - thwack! Then the left - thwack! Bows are exchanged and silence returns to the room. While this is probably just the jolt I need to break free of my self-awareness I let him pass me by each lap he makes.
In Japanese za means “sitting” and zen means “meditation”. The impossibly difficult "full lotus" position replicates Buddha's posture. Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, is generally credited with introducing zazen to Japan. He layed out the principles in an instruction manual called Zazengi which emphasized the harmonizing of body, breath and mind.
The "effortless non-striving" required for proper zazen, as prescribed by Dogen, may seem unattainable to a beginner like myself, but then zazen really isn't about attaining or getting or reaching anything at all. Trying to do zazen is really to fail. So, another day I will attempt not to attempt zazen.
What is zazen good for? Zazen isn't good for anything.
- Sawaki Roshi (1880 - 1965) Soto Zen Buddhist priest